GREEN BAY — The fossil fuel industry has been exceptionally influential this year, persuading a receptive Trump administration and Congress to give it weakened environmental and health regulations, expanded mining and drilling on public lands and greater use of coal-fired power plants.
Now it is using the impacts of hurricanes that lashed the Houston area and South Florida to argue for expanding its oil and gas pipelines to assure uninterrupted supplies.
Certainly, increased resiliency in energy infrastructure is desirable, but we must look also to the less visible but real damage caused by our addiction to fossil fuels.
What about those new pipelines? Massive storms can inflict serious damage on pipelines as well as on electric power grids and roads, as we saw in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico. So the oil and gas industry is wise to reassess the stability of current pipelines to assure adequate supplies of fuel during and after emergencies.
For the same reasons, every city in the nation should rethink the vulnerability of its infrastructure given forecasts of increased storm severity. Many of them already are doing so as they consider innovative urban design changes.
But it is equally important to reconsider the viability of our entire energy system. Currently, about 80 percent of our energy comes from fossil fuels: coal, oil, and natural gas.
In light of the well-documented risks of climate change, confirmed by the National Climate Assessment released this month, we need to move toward a more diversified set of energy sources.
Fortunately, that is indeed what many nations are doing, notwithstanding efforts by the fossil fuel industry to portray such actions falsely as harmful to jobs or economic growth. More than half of the electrical generating capacity the United States added to its grid last year came from renewable energy, as did nearly two-thirds of new global generating capacity. These developments reflect a remarkable transformation in energy technology.
We could be doing even better if the Trump administration would end its misguided actions to disguise the reality of climate change. It continues to suppress scientific research on climate change, block government scientists from speaking about it, and scrub federal agency websites of its mention.
The administration also promotes inefficient fossil fuel sources over clean energy. For example, Rick Perry’s Department of Energy is proposing a rule to increase subsidies for non-competitive and aging coal and nuclear power plants while arguing that subsidies for renewable energy ought to be curtailed.
DOE says the rule enhances the “reliability and resiliency” of the power grid. But it does not, as a DOE study makes clear. Another nonpartisan study found that the rule could cost billions of dollars a year while benefitting relatively few companies with older power plants.
Two conclusions stand out.
One is that if the fossil fuel industry needs to build additional oil and gas pipelines to minimize loss of service during emergencies, it should do so. But federal and state governments also should insist the industry meet reasonable requirements to minimize environmental damage and risks to public health.
The second is that we should put such decisions into the context of credible climate forecasts and the imperative to turn our energy system in a different direction that will assure long-term public health, safety, and economic strength.
We will be reliant on oil and natural gas resources for a long time, particularly gasoline for transportation.
Even so, it would be smart to increase funding now for research on non-carbon energy technologies, promote them in a competitive marketplace, and reevaluate our infrastructure to assure its reliability in an uncertain future.
The sooner we recognize these challenges, the more time we have to get it right and to help minimize what could be enormous adverse impacts on the economy and society.